DETROIT — Mike Napoli did not lack for opportunities when he became a free agent last winter. He is a righthanded hitter with power whose résumé included success in the postseason.
The Red Sox made an aggressive offer early in the process, a bid that was accompanied by a personal appeal from John Lackey.
Lackey and Napoli were teammates with the Los Angeles Angels for five years and became friends along the way. Lackey had struggled in his time with the Red Sox but still recommended Napoli join him in Boston.
“I trusted John,” Napoli said. “He was somebody who was always straight with you.”
That partnership was never more fruitful than it was on Tuesday. Lackey pitched one of the best games of his career and was backed by Napoli’s long home run as the Red Sox beat the Detroit Tigers, 1-0, in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
The Sox are two victories from the World Series. Game 4 is Wednesday night with Jake Peavy facing Doug Fister.
For Lackey, it was a game that should forever change how he is perceived in Boston. He matched Justin Verlander pitch for pitch and zero for zero, holding the Tigers down until getting the lead when Napoli connected in the seventh inning.
Lackey allowed four hits and struck out eight without a walk. He left the game grudgingly with two outs in the seventh inning, shaking his head when manager John Farrell came to the mound and muttering a curse.
Farrell, a former pitcher, understood the emotions.
“If you poll any starting pitcher, they want that moment,” he said. “They want the importance of every pitch to be on it, particularly this late in the season. They want that responsibility. John is no different.”
Farrell’s strategy worked as Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara got the final seven outs.
Breslow walked Austin Jackson with one out in the eighth inning before Torii Hunter singled off of Tazawa.
Tazawa then struck out the fearsome Miguel Cabrera on four pitches, all fastballs away. Uehara came in and struck out Prince Fielder to end the threat. Uehara then finished the game for the save, his third of the postseason.
Breslow, Tazawa, and Uehara have allowed one run over 15 innings in the postseason.
“Just very good work by every guy that went to the mound today,” Farrell said.
For the postseason, Red Sox pitchers have a 2.59 earned run average over seven games. A team that led baseball in scoring is now leaning on its pitching. Tuesday was the first 1-0 game the Sox have won this season.
“Those guys, our pitchers, have been overshadowed all season,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “Tampa Bay has great pitching and so does Detroit. But our guys don’t take a backseat.”
Lackey and Saltalamacchia worked smoothly all game, mixing in an effective curveball to complement good command of his fastball. A big part of Lackey’s strong comeback from elbow surgery was his ability to connect with Saltalamacchia.
“He’s my boy, first of all,” Lackey said. “A good buddy. When you care about each other like we take care of each other off the field, I think it carries out onto the field.
“You can trust that guy back there. You know he’s in the battle with you and thinking along with you.”
Lackey needed a run to work with and that was elusive. That it came from Napoli was unexpected.
Napoli was 2 for 17 in the postseason and had struck out all four times he batted in the ALCS. But Farrell stuck with his first baseman, who was 7 for 23 in his career with one home run against Verlander.
That home run came in Napoli’s first big-league plate appearance, which was at Comerica Park in 2006. Lackey was watching from the bench that day.
On Tuesday, it took a bit longer. Verlander struck out Napoli in the second inning and again in the fifth. The Detroit righthander went into the seventh inning riding a streak of 21 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason.
Going back to the regular season, Verlander had not allowed a run over 33 innings spanning five starts.
With one out, Napoli worked the count full. Verlander then missed over the plate with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball. Napoli launched it over the wall in left-center.
“He threw me two sliders before the fastball, I felt comfortable,” Napoli said. “I took them really well and I felt comfortable and confident when I saw those.
“I just tried to be short to the ball.”
Said Verlander: “Having faced him a couple of times already I knew he wasn’t seeing the fastball that great. I decided to challenge him. I made a little bit of a mistake. It was up and over the middle.
“You have to give him credit.”
The Red Sox never came close to scoring otherwise. Verlander allowed four hits over eight innings and struck out 10. Detroit’s three starters have allowed two runs and struck out 35 over 21 innings in the series. But the Tigers are down a game.
“The runs are pretty stingy,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “This is what it’s about in the postseason, good pitching.”
Lackey, frustrated so often in his four seasons with the Sox, couldn’t stop smiling after the game.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I knew I was going to have to pitch pretty good today.”
Lackey then looked at Napoli.
“The guys came through, the boy took care of me once again,” he said. “He’s hit some dingers for me and it was a big one today.”